Steaming out of a nuclear war

Hall Class loco

Pic of Hall class GWR loco from 1979 – part of secret strategic steam engine reserve

Is it just me, or is this totally surreal? Apparently, as part of the UK’s top secret nuclear war survival strategy, 160 steam (and a few diesel) engines were kept in working order in an underground depot up until 1982… when they were all secretly cut-up.
Apparently, they might have been saved but for the pesky Greenham Women

What a shame we did not know at the time – could have been the subject of a song or two. Or even the chance to fill the pages of anarcho fanzines with pics of steam trains with mushroom clouds coming out of their funnels…

Anyhow, here is a cut ‘n’ past taken from :

Long viewed as a kind of British ‘Area 51’ , the vast underground complex at Corsham, Rudloe Manor, Box near Bath, England was the wartime home of a joint War Office/ U.S. Government plant for the assembly of the famous ‘Jeep’ light reconnaissance truck.
Less well known however is its cold war function as home of a vast collection of retired steam locomotives – the legendary strategic steam reserve.

Secure underground storage
As well as acres of secure storage space, the mothballed Jeep factory provided both the tooling and the skilled pool of local labour – former employees who were fitters, metalworkers, machinists etc. – necessary to keep the stock of over 160 locomotives in working order. As late as 1982, long after the demise of steam on Britain’s railways, a small staff of dedicated personnel were still carrying out care and maintenance on the stock of slumbering giants.

Unlike their diesel and electric counterparts, the steam locomotives had no electrical or electronic control systems which could have been affected by the electro magnetic pulse created by a nuclear explosion. They also required no imported fuel oil or electricity which would have been in very short supply after an attack.

End of the strategic reserve
The last word is perhaps best left to Bob Watson who tended the strategic steam reserve throughout its existence:

‘They were in good nick as we’d kept the boilers filled with de-oxygenated water and although none of them had official boiler tickets, we were exempt and could fire them up for test runs. I never worried as we had a retired boiler inspector of 35 years experience on the staff and if he’d fire it I’d drive it! We had a regular greasing and maintenance schedule and we’d take one at random every two or three months and fire it up for a day to make sure it was o.k.

I was sad, we all were, when the engines were scrapped. I’d expected them to go over to Dai Woodham ( A scrapyard in Barry, South Wales. ) where I reckon most of them would have ended up being preserved but the government at the time was very sensitive about anything to do with nuclear war after the Greenham Common women and all the protests.

It was budget cuts that led eventually to the decision to decommission the steam reserve.That and the fact that the preserved railway movement was growing and there were locomotives and staff that could be requisitioned in an emergency and cost the government nothing to maintain!
We cut them up on site, no contractors because of security, and the metal was taken in lorries direct to the British Steel plant at Llanwern, it kept me busy more or less up until I retired.’

  1. R I Mason
    R I Mason
    May 10, 2008 at 8:10 pm

    Did anyone hear the programme on Radio 4 this morning at 10 30 concerning the so called Strategic Steam Reserve presented by Steve Punt who argued that it is a myth based on all the research done by the programme including Box Tunnel.Peter Hands who recorded all loco scrapping in the 1960s could find no discrepencies in the records.

  2. alistairliv
    alistairliv • Post Author •
    May 10, 2008 at 9:07 pm

    Secret steam engines a myth? It could be, I had never heard of it until I found the info on the website quoted. But don’t forget the whole WW2 Bletchley Park/ Enigma/ Colossus project was kept secret until the 1970ies.

    I missed the programme, but will listen again.

  3. alistairliv
    alistairliv • Post Author •
    May 10, 2008 at 10:15 pm

    Heard the programme. Looks like it is a myth – dating back to 1975, first published 1981 – just found this on a trainspotters website about strategic steam reserve which dates the story to :

    “the feature which appeared in No. 1 of Steam World dated April 1981. The guy with curly hair and glasses was Stephen Burgess, and there was a line drawing showing engines such as 8Fs and WDs in the article.

    In 1975 Stephen Burgess was a uni student at Aberystwyth. On October 2nd he was on his way there by train, starting from Birmingham. According to the article he fell asleep during the journey and didn’t wake up when the train arrived at Shrewsbury station. By the time he did wake up the d.m.u. had been shunted into sidings where he saw ‘ 2 or 3 lines of steam locomotives……. large and in good condition, painted dull black….. with large painted white numbers on their tenders’.

    When I was last at Shrewsbury about 2 years back there were some stabling sidings near the triangular junction just outside the station. To that extent Burgess’ story is just about credible but in other respects his account poses more questions than it answers, as does the way in which all this was reported in the magazine.

    I remember meeting the author of that article not long after it appeared and asking him whether he really believed the story. His reply (apart from recommending that I bought the next issue of the magazine which was going to carry a follow-up feature) was something to the effect that
    ‘the Government admits it does have a strategic reserve of locomotives!’ ”

    -but these were a few diesel shunting engines.

  4. Stephen Burgess
    Stephen Burgess
    October 29, 2008 at 9:47 pm

    This is interesting. I have lost most of my curly hair but still have the glasses.
    Amazing this story has reemerged after all these years.

  5. alistairliv
    alistairliv • Post Author •
    October 30, 2008 at 8:46 am

    I think the story re-emerged because it feels like it “ought to be true” even if it isn’t quite.

  6. Reginald Rug
    Reginald Rug
    October 27, 2009 at 7:16 pm

    Everyone seems to be barking up the wrong tree on this one – the prime reason for there being a Stretigic Steam Reserve was not the maintenance of rail communications in a post-atomic apocalyptic scenario, but simply if the oil ran out. I was a member of a group that purchased a locomotive from Woodham Brothers in 1973/74, exactly the same time that the whole country from the PM downwards was s*itting itself about this eventuality, including the printing and issuing of petrol coupons (I still have mine). Our chairman used to meet Mr.Woodham frequently and told us that he had received a directive from British Rail not to cut up any more steam locomotives until further notice. I think that this could well have been the start of this myth.

  7. Arno Brooks
    Arno Brooks
    October 31, 2009 at 7:43 pm

    Doubtful evidence for the secret steam reserve. The photo of the Hall Class steam loco was taken much earlier than 1979. The picure was taken in early 1967 at the latest. Behind the steamer is a diesel loco of the D600 “Warship” class. These early diesel locos were not very reliable or successful and were withdrawn around 1967. The last Halls ran in service early in ’67. I reckon that the loco in the picture is at the very end of its life because its name-plate has been removed and, more significantly, so have its cab-side and front number plates. The Halls and D600s both ran on the Western Region of British Rail and such a photo could have been taken at a number of different engine sheds sometime during 65 or 66. Another point; the Hall class was introduced in 1928 – they were very old fashioned machines. If steam locos were being kept for a future emergency there were several designs from the late ’30s to the ’50s that would have been far more suitable and easier to drive.

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